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The Importance of Early Intervention for Children with ADHD

By Meghan Vivo

“Your child has Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder.” These words can be crushing to parents. But hearing these words when your child is young may actually be a gift in disguise.

A recent study led by Joshua Breslau of the University of California, Davis, School of Medicine, suggests that attention problems early in a child’s life can directly influence future academic performance in the form of lower test scores and grades and diminished self-confidence.

"The evidence suggests what many educators may already suspect, that kids with attention problems don't learn as much," said Breslau. "This starts very early for many children and is cumulative."

The researchers found that attention problems had a stronger impact on future academic success than other childhood psychiatric problems, including depression, anxiety and disruptive behavior. Other research shows that at least 70 percent of ADHD children also experience at least one secondary emotional, learning or behavioral problem, are at high risk for developing aggression, opposition and defiance, and are more likely to be suspended and expelled from school.

Attention problems often become apparent as early as kindergarten, when demands are placed on children to engage in higher level learning and develop specific cognitive skills. Experts have found that by the time kids with ADHD get to elementary school, they're already behind their peers academically, behaviorally and emotionally.

It’s important for children to experience early academic success in order to preserve their enthusiasm for school, career and life in general. As the study authors explained, "Ultimately, students who do poorly may lose motivation to invest in academic work, become more open to competing interests, including substance abuse, and more likely to drop out of school."

Although a diagnosis of ADHD is never easy, the study findings show just how important it is for educators, parents and medical professionals to identify attention problems early and find appropriate programs for children with ADHD in order to prevent problems that could have a lifelong impact.

High-Energy Child or Attention Problem?

ADHD is a neurobehavioral disorder that affects school-aged children (usually by age 7), and lasts into adulthood. The American Psychiatric Association's Diagnostic and Statistical Manual-IV estimates that between 3 and 7 percent of children suffer from ADHD.

Diagnosing a young child with ADHD can be difficult. Most 5- and 6-year-olds are active and reluctant to sit still for long periods of time, so how do parents know if their son or daughter is a normal, high-energy child or a child with ADHD?

Some of the symptoms of ADHD include:

• Difficulty following directions, completing simple projects or controlling impulses
• Inability to take turns, remain seated or play quietly
• Interrupting others constantly or talking excessively
• Difficulty socializing, often having few friends
• Fidgeting constantly, even when at rest
• Forgetful, frequently losing school supplies or other items
• Easily distracted by noises or other happenings, preventing them from completing assignments or staying on task
• Trouble listening or remembering directions
• Emotional problems such as depression and low self-esteem

It can also be helpful to ask yourself how your child’s behavior compares with other children’s behavior, whether the behavior is leading to problems in daily functioning, whether the behavior may stem from other factors or conditions in the child’s life, and whether the behavior occurs in more than one setting (e.g., at school, home or both).

What Can Parents Do?

Effective early intervention requires a multi-tiered approach. Studies have shown that young children displaying signs of ADHD fare best when their parents use the following approaches to manage their child’s behavior at home:

• Use brief, direct commands
• Provide positive attention for appropriate behaviors
• Use positive reinforcement (such as a token reward system) for compliance with parent directives
• Use time-outs to reduce noncompliant and aggressive behavior
• Increase structure and predictability in the daily routine and reduce distractions

If you suspect that your child may have ADHD, get your child evaluated by a skilled professional early on who can determine whether the child is struggling with ADHD or some other emotional or behavioral issue such as anxiety, learning disabilities, depression or sleep disturbances, and prescribe medications as appropriate.

There are also a number of reputable and highly effective programs for children with ADHD. For example, Stone Mountain School in North Carolina is a therapeutic boarding school for boys with ADHD that uses hands-on, interactive teaching techniques designed specifically to help children with ADHD excel in school and at home. With an ideal blend of classroom interventions, behavioral modifications, and individual, group and family therapy, Stone Mountain provides boys with a structured environment in which they can thrive.

For girls with ADHD, New Leaf Academy, with campuses in Oregon and North Carolina, features small class sizes with fewer distractions and more one-on-one attention from teachers who specialize in working with children with ADHD.

Short-term programs for kids with ADHD can also be helpful in building self-esteem and overcoming academic failures and negative interactions with others. Talisman Camps in North Carolina are experiential wilderness camps for children with ADHD that help children develop physical and social competence in an atmosphere that encourages and supports self-regulation and self-direction.

A diagnosis of ADHD can be overwhelming, but help is available. While early intervention will not cure ADHD, taking action now will dramatically improve your child’s chances of managing their ADHD and excelling academically and emotionally well into adulthood. As study author Breslau said, "Studies clearly show that early investment in children pays off big later on."


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